On September 29th, more than 1000 Vincentians gathered at Belle Isle for our annual Friends of the Poor Walk. It was a gorgeous Saturday morning in Motown. Debbie Jackson and her team did a terrific job organizing the event, which was our largest walk to date. Those who attended shared the moment with family and friends, met Vincentians from other Districts and Conferences, and enjoyed tasty refreshments prepared and served by our fellow Vincentians from Matchan Nutrition Center.
Overall, we celebrated friendship and community. We also shared a leisurely three mile journey that lasted only a matter of hours. By design, that journey was intended to end when it did.
As you know, our Council’s inspirational journey of service has lasted 134 years. By design, it is intended to continue for decades more to come. We are committed to making that happen and can surely do so, especially if we grow spiritually and remain mission-focused.
1. SVdPD – Our Longer Journey of Service
Our Council has been engaged in an enduring journey of service that focuses on a powerful relationship with God: loving our neighbor, especially those in need. Vincentians dedicate themselves to the poor and marginalized. When teaching us about service, Jesus made no mention of limiting our help to “deserving” or “worthy” neighbors. Instead, as Matthew 25 and our Rule 2.1 reminds, we should see Jesus in those we serve. We should also see Jesus in each of our fellow Vincentians. These teachings allude to two practical ways in which our organization can grow.
2. Our Internal Opportunity – Inclusion
It has been suggested that the only thing that remains constant is change. Long ago, when my ancestors poured into this country from an impoverished Ireland desperately looking for work, they were greeted by sign after sign after sign that simply read, “Irish Need Not Apply.” Italians, Germans, Poles, Jews, Chinese, and many others were met with similar or worse unkindness. And how our nation treated Native Americans and African Americans for centuries stands among the most tragic episodes in human history.
Imagine our Conference Connection in those early years (had there been one). Consistent with our Rule, it surely would have urged a more compassionate response to the cries of the poor. In time, and in part because of early Vincentian help and recruitment efforts, those brothers and sisters in need became Vincentians. Indeed, over the decades, inviting immigrants and those who faced truly unfortunate impediments of various kinds to join our ranks helped create the global service institution SVDP is today. We need to perpetuate that inspiring process of including and welcoming all who share our mission.
The winds of change are blowing hard these days. The journey for those who seek to be included continues. But, according to noted Boston College professor, Dr. Hosffman Ospino, who spoke forcefully at our National Conference in San Diego, our Vincentian ranks remain overwhelmingly Caucasian. Dr. Ospino pointed out that, thirty years ago, the U.S. Catholic Church was 90% Caucasian. Today, it is roughly 55% Caucasian.
SVdPD should see this reality as an opportunity to experience a truly “Vincentian moment”. We should examine whether our internal culture is as inviting and welcoming to our brothers and sisters of color as it should be. We need to invite and attract more neighbors of color into our ranks.
As part of its contribution, our Council intends to promote inclusion proactively. Likewise, our District and Conference meetings should consider discussing what can be done to promote aggressively more recruitment of Hispanic Americans, African Americans, Asian Americans, and others who share our mission.
As we do, we should also be ever mindful of certain troubling realities. For example, according to Dr. Ospino, our nation has more Catholic children today than it did fifty years ago. But it has less than one-half of the Catholic schools it had then. How many neighbors of color are in need? How many live at or below the poverty level? How can those neighbors even support a Catholic church in their neighborhood, let alone a Catholic school? Consider this: fifty years ago, the City of Detroit had roughly 100 Catholic grade schools. Today it has four.
How will this sobering reality affect our next generation? Will it impact their willingness to serve and help others? Perhaps. Catholic schools surely helped to promote and perpetuate that interest, which has served as a cornerstone for our organization’s ability to sustain itself for many generations.
Surely, as much as it may want to do so, Vincentians cannot create a school district for fellow Catholics and others in need. But Vincentians can and should discuss and explore practical, innovative, effective ways of mitigating this and other alarming trends and thereby help Catholic (and other) neighbors in need.
3. Our External Opportunity – Compassion
Our Rule encourages us to see Jesus in all who we serve. In light of so many such neighbors (and the number is growing), that can be a very tall order. Dedicated service can lead to exhaustion, cynicism, and becoming harshly judgmental of those we serve. Such a mindset is clearly contrary to our Vincentian spirit. But when sustained service is not accompanied by spiritual nourishment, it happens. I share two practical suggestions on how we might reduce the possibility of “service burn out” within our ranks.
a) Setting Realistic Expectations – Ministering to People
In a previous column, I challenged the recent inaccurate proclamation that our nation’s War on Poverty was over; and that we had “won”. It is entirely likely that we may never eradicate poverty. But that should not be our goal as Vincentians. Rather, we should minster to people in need. Consider the following excerpt.
“I knew a minister who labored for decades in the inner city. He worked among the poor and oppressed. Oddly, he had one associate pastor after another. The average tenure of the ministers who came along side to help him was two years. I asked him, “Why don’t they stay?” He said that the problem was that they quickly became disillusioned. They came out of seminary and came to the ghetto because they wanted to labor for Christ where people were hurting. But soon they became depressed and left. I asked him, “Why have you been able to stay all this time?” He said., “because of the words of Jesus, ‘The poor you have with you always.’ ” I replied, “Every time I’ve heard anyone quote that, it was cited as an excuse to neglect the poor, not to minister to them.” He said, “Well, what I understand Jesus to say is that I will never be able to eliminate poverty. Therefore, when I came here, I had no expectation that I was going to be able to solve all these problems. I never thought that I would eliminate poverty even among my parishioners. My mission isn’t to get rid of the poor or to get rid of all these problems. My mission is to minister to people who are suffering from these things while they are here and while I am here.” (emphasis added). Amen, brother!
Herein lies the essence of our Vincentian mission. After all, compassion is a willingness to walk with another and share in his or her chaos, not necessarily to rid them of their burdens. Clearly, compassion should be a gift that we generously share with fellow Vincentians as well. Like all humans, Vincentians carry burdens, too.
b) Spiritual Nourishment
Our collective efforts to serve those in need are more akin to running a marathon than a sprint. To sustain our efforts, we need spiritual nourishment. Our Rule contemplates as much. Like the dedicated, local hero minister in the ghetto, many Catholic sisters have faithfully served brothers and sisters in need for decades and have found ways to sustain themselves. These are women whose own church has not always recognized them for their tireless, selfless efforts.
Our Council has initiated a dialogue of reflection with several extraordinary Catholic sisters. The fundamental goal of these reflections is to one day offer a practical, useful “spiritual nourishment program” to all involved in our Council who are seeking to grow spiritually. I hope that it will be an invitation to walk together and to allow what’s deepest in our hearts – our values, and in our spirits – to be a gift that we give generously to each other. Doing so will motivate and nourish us to remain filled with the spirit of our mission.
Indeed, as Jesus walked with people in need, we too can help those we serve believe in the spirit that lives in them. Doing so on a sustained basis is our faith – every faith – at its very best.
By design, our 134 year Vincentian journey in the Archdiocese of Detroit continues. As temporary custodians, it is our time to make our lasting contribution to a most inspirational, unbroken, century and one-half legacy of service. May our contribution to this awesome legacy consist of proactive inclusion within our ranks. In that sense, each of us is like a building stone. By our personal choices, our building stone either becomes part of a wall or part of a bridge. Which do you prefer?
Our legacy must also remain focused upon our mission of serving those in need. Those needs are changing. So, too, must we. As we do, let us remember a verse from the Servant’s Song, a song we sing in church as we praise our God. The message has much broader application.
“I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laugh with you. I will share your joy and sorrow, Til we’ve seen this journey through.”
See the Possible, fellow Vincentians, www.svdpdetroit.org. Thank you for caring. God bless. Peace,
Daniel P. Malone